The Iranian government indicted a 32-year-old Iranian-American pastor this week on unknown charges after he traveled to Iran to help build an orphanage and visit family.
Saeed Abedini, a Muslim convert to Christianity, has been harassed by the Iranian government for more than a decade because of his work in the house church movement in Iran, according to American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing the pastor.
In 2005, Abedini and his American wife, Naghmeh, moved to the United States because of the increased persecution, and he has since gained U.S. citizenship. According to his Facebook page, Abedini and his family—including a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son—reside in Boise, Idaho. Abedini was arrested on one of his frequent trips back to his home country.
ACLJ also worked to free Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani earlier this year when he was sentenced to death for apostasy. Executive director Jordan Sekulow said in a statement that he sees a “troubling pattern” of Christians being arrested in Iran for their faith.
"What makes this particular case so much more disturbing is that Pastor Saeed, who was born and raised in Iran, has been granted U.S. citizenship,” Sekulow said. “He's been in prison for nearly three months simply because of his Christian faith. Now, he's been indicted by an Iranian court—a development that could very well result in a death sentence."
In a testimony Abedini wrote for Idaho’s Intermountain Christian News last year, Abedini said that he grew up a devout Muslim and his mosque’s leaders hand-picked him to be trained to attack Israel. At the age of 20, he heard a Christian pastor say that “Jesus was Lord,” and was determined to kill him for his blasphemy. But on his way to murder the pastor, Abedini ran into two Christians who shared the gospel with him and prayed for him. He decided not to carry out his assassination and over the next few weeks accepted Christ as his savior.
He started questioning when Jesus would come back, and one night he said he heard the voice of God saying repeatedly, “Saeed, Saeed … I am coming back soon, go preach my gospel.” From then on, he preached the gospel in the streets, universities, and everywhere he went. He formed a network of house churches where former Muslims who converted to Christianity could worship. The movement now has about 100 churches in 30 cities with more than 2,000 members.
Abedini and his wife have been back to Iran several times between 2009 and 2012 to visit family. On a trip in 2009, authorities detained and interrogated Abedini for converting to Christianity. Officials forced him to sign an agreement saying he would be released and allowed to enter and exit the country freely as long as he stopped working with the house church.
“Over the last few years, I’ve been able to see thousands of Iranian Muslims come to know Christ,” he wrote in his 2011 testimony. “My obedience to preaching the gospel has caused me to be arrest and imprisoned many times. … Miraculously, I’ve been freed every time.”
But in July, officials broke the agreement and arrested him for his previous work as a Christian leader, even though he was only in the country to visit family and set up a non-sectarian orphanage. He was put under house arrest until September, when he was put in prison.
In interrogations, Abedini was informally told he was charged for threatening the national security of Iran and for espionage, because of his work with house churches and foreign Christian TV ministries, according to Fox News. The government offered bail of about $410,000, but Abedini’s family have not been able to get it accepted or approved.
Naghmeh said she feared for his health, as phones calls with him revealed he was beaten by guards and cell-mates who self-identify as members of al-Qaeda. The family originally tried to get him released privately, but when that didn’t work, they reached out to ACLJ. They hope to pressure the Iranian government through international support.
“It’s hardest on the kids,” Naghmeh told Fox News. “My daughter said she is forgetting Daddy's voice and she asked me, 'Do you think he has a beard now?' I didn't even think of that. She keeps playing the home videos over and over. It's the hardest at night because he had a night routine with them when he would read them books and tuck them in. They miss that the most."